Book review: Steve McQueen: A Biography by Marc Eliot

He was ‘Mr Cool’ one minute and ‘Mr Nasty’ the next, a Hollywood legend in his lifetime and the nearest thing to James Dean.

Marc Eliot’s new biography of the enigma that was Steve McQueen brings us both the suave movie actor and the unpredictable, moody and sometimes violent son of a rebellious teenage girl who never truly left behind his lonely, traumatic childhood.

‘I’m not a prodigy of the beat generation,’ McQueen once declared. ‘I’ve knocked around a lot, and there’s nothing very romantic in it.... If I hadn’t become an actor, I might have gone the other way – into an anti-social life, possibly a life of crime.’

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Showbiz biographer Eliot paints a fascinating portrait of the insecure, complex and haunted film icon who attracted women with his cheeky blue eyes and lopsided grin, but had a nasty habit of loving them and leaving them.

But Eliot’s biography is not so much a study of one of the silver screen’s biggest names as a fascinating insight into the Hollywood movie business.

McQueen was once the highest-paid film star in the world, a status earned through his roles in films like The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair and The Great Escape, but he also turned down at least as many roles in top-rated films from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to The French Connection.

Every film that McQueen made is covered here, along with revelations about his problems with Method acting. Contemporaries like Clint Eastwood thrived on it and made the studio system work for him while an insecure McQueen struggled with his sense of himself, both on and off screen.

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Born in Beech Grove, Indiana, in 1930, McQueen never knew his father, a one-time navy biplane flier turned circus stuntman, who walked out when young Steven was only six months old.

When his mother also abandoned him, he was taken in for a spell by an unmarried uncle who lived on a farm in Missouri. For the first time in his life, the sullen child received some real affection even though it was tempered by hard work and harsh punishments care of a ‘hickory switch.’

He learned to ride a bike, shoot, and enjoy the movies, but constantly passed between his mother and relatives, he was regularly in trouble both at home and with the law until he reached the age of 15 when he hitched a ride with a travelling circus and headed off into the future.

He later explained that he walked away because ‘there really was no home... I have had no education. I came from a world of brute force.’

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After military service, McQueen began studying acting and made his Broadway debut in 1955. He broke into films in 1959 when he was given a role in Frank Sinatra’s film Never So Few and was soon a box office sensation.

Using interviews with people who have never before spoken about him and drawing upon diaries in the private McQueen collection, Eliot takes readers through the actor’s rollercoaster career, his three turbulent marriages and his distressing death from asbestos-related malignant mesothelioma in 1980.

An illuminating account of a life lived on the edge...

(Aurum, hardback, £20)

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